There’s a nip in the air which, to me, signals the end of summer and provides a wake-up call to start planting some spring bulbs to brighten up borders and patios next year.
Yet the wealth of varieties on offer, from crocus and dwarf narcissi to fragrant hyacinths and majestic tulips, can leave many gardeners wondering what to choose.
Suppliers are constantly trying to help customers select the best combinations. Suttons (www.suttons.co.uk), for instance, has a range called ‘Plant-O-Mat’, pre-planted bulbs inserted in individual compartments in a biodegradable tray. You just dig a hole, put the tray in and cover it with compost. The range features a number of combinations, colours and sizes. They also cater for window boxes and containers.
If you want something different which is going to stand the test of time, Gardening Which?, the Consumers’ Association magazine, has recently trialled a number of new bulbs to see how they fared.
Researchers found that some new varieties will flower more consistently and for much longer than many older varieties.
Last autumn, triallists chose 50 newly bred varieties of spring-flowering bulbs and grew them alongside five well-known varieties - daffodils ‘Delnashaugh’ and ‘Dutch Master’, and tulips ‘Ballerina’,’Mount Tacoma’ and ‘Red Riding Hood’ - for comparison.
Bulbs were planted in October: hyacinths 15cm deep, narcissus twice their own depth and tulips at three times their own depth. In spring, the bulbs’ development was monitored, when they flowered, how long they lasted and their sizes, colours and scents.
In the latest batch of testing, researchers noticed a lot of colour-changing varieties (such as tulip ‘Caribbean Parrot’) with flowers that open in one colour then change to another as they age, adding a new element of interest.
New daffodils which came out on top included ‘Ferris Wheel’ (youtulip, www.youtulip.co.uk), a large bright yellow variety which grows to 40cm and produces immense trumpets with a frilly rim, flowering in April for around three weeks.
A more subtle variety whose flowering period lasted up to 32 days was ‘Beautiful Eyes’ (J Parker’s, www.jparkers.co.uk) which has small, straight stems holding clusters of two or three creamy flowers with yellow centres and gives off a heady fragrance.
Tulips recommended included ‘Mistress Mystic’ (Spalding Plant & Bulb Company, www.spaldingbulb.co.uk), a pink goblet-shaped flower which grows to 60cm and looks ideal in the middle of a border, and the zingy ‘Caribbean Parrot’ (Thompson & Morgan, www.thompson-morgan.com), which lasted much longer than any other parrot-type tulip in the trial and looked wonderful in a pot. Its most impressive feature, though, was its colour-changing flowers - which started mainly yellow, but deepened as they aged, until eventually they were almost completely red.
Among the top-performing hyacinths was ‘Pink Angel’ (Bloms Bulbs, www.blomsbulbs.com), whose brightly coloured flower spikes were much larger and better formed than any of the other varieties, with a fantastically potent scent. Unlike the other hyacinths grown in the test, they managed to stay bolt upright throughout the trial - essential if you’re going to use them in the garden, although they looked good in pots too.